Wednesday, December 9, 2009

God, Life, and Everything - Tolerance

I write a column called "God, Life, and Everything" for the Hudson Valley News. The title reflects the broad scope I want to take. Everything in life falls under the eye of God, and if we watch carefully, we can catch a glimpse of God in it all.

Ah, the holidays, that blessed time when families get together. They’re great -- as long as nobody talks about religion or politics, right?

Right. Or more precisely, hogwash.

What fun is a family that has to tiptoe around all the most interesting topics? That would pretty much limit us to talking about the weather and watching football, and who wants that?

I say, a family worth its salt can handle lively, even heated debate about those core issues. If it’s a healthy family, you can be yourself and know that you are still loved and will always have a place at the table, even if you are totally and insanely wrong.

You could call this “tolerance,” I suppose.

But I won’t. the word “tolerance” has been so misused in recent years as to have virtually no meaning at all. Accusations fly left and right about not being tolerant. Opposing sides claim they are tolerant while the other clearly is not.

I read a letter to the editor of our national church newspaper where the writer argued that the church is not tolerant because it will not refuse to ordain a certain class of people (not who you think). He went on to say that the church is disregarding the wishes of those who do not wish to see these people ordained and is therefore intolerant of them (those who don’t want the ordinations).

Say what? I had to reread the letter a few times to make sure I read right. The church is intolerant because it will not do what a certain group of people wants?

You might disagree with church decisions (there are many I do), but to call that intolerant is just plain silly. Even though I hate resorting to dictionaries for definitions, a look at Webster is called for here: Tolerance is “Recognition of and respect for the opinions, beliefs, or practices of others.”

For what it’s worth, the church recognizes all views and respects them as well as those who hold them, but it does not have to do, and indeed cannot do, what every group wants.

To expand on this definition, I would add that tolerance means to accept others wherever they are on their life journey -- to accept them complete with their thoughts, values, life choices -- all the while welcoming them in the community even if their thoughts, values and life choices are repugnant.

I come from a large family that spans the spectrum both politically and religiously. We have members who call Rush Limbaugh a pinko, and we have those who call President Obama the “Second W.” We have Baptists, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians, a Buddhist and some atheists. We have gun toting good old boys and big city aesthetes. Straight, gay, single, married, uncommitted. We have it all in my family.

I won’t say that all our conversations are religious or political, but when we get into one of the taboo topics, it is with the understanding that we are all family. We accept each other for who we are. Period.

This holds true whether it is a nuclear family or a church or a community. Tolerance means you are a welcome part of the community regardless of who you are or what your condition is.

This is tolerance in its strictest sense.

Of course, tolerance also allows those who can’t stand it to leave. If, for example, a family member held a religious view that seemed outrageous, and another relative refused to sit at the table with them, a tolerant family would say, “That’s your choice. We’ll miss you.” It would not try to force them to the table.

What tolerance is NOT is putting up with abuse. It is not tolerance to let someone continue physically, verbally or mentally abusing you. That’s being a door mat. It is not tolerance to let a person continue to someone else, either. That’s complicity. If somebody is abusive, they forfeit the right to exercise those behaviors. If they persist, they forfeit their right to be in that community, at least for the time being.

While I disagree vehemently with some of my relatives on their politics and religion, we continue to love each other. But if one physically abused another, I am fairly certain the rest would be all over them in a New York minute. And we would support the victim.

Likewise, if a relative cheated on another repeatedly, we would most likely let them know what we thought. We would support the victim in pushing for counseling or, if they felt they needed it - leaving.

Of course, we always seek reconciliation first - it is at the core of our faith - but reconciliation is no more complicity or being a door mat than is tolerance.

So in politics or religion, whether it’s the issues of gays or abortion or women priests, we are tolerant of all others, even when they make us uncomfortable or offend us by their beliefs and practices - they have a seat at the table. Become abusive, however, and that’s something nobody should tolerate.